The long-awaited one-two punch of EXO’s Don’t Mess Up My Tempo and subsequent Love Shot repackage provided fans with two heaping doses of polished pop. From Daft Punk’s Tron to U.K. garage, EXO checks off all the stylistic boxes on their latest works, expanding upon and further fleshing out their diverse discography.
The sonic gambles have paid off: The Love Shot repackage has already swept iTunes charts around the world from Thailand to the United States, building upon the record-breaking success of its predecessor Tempo. The members of EXO are still going strong six years into their careers, with Love Shot representing a new apex for the boy band.
We spoke with the producers behind EXO’s greatest LP thus far for the stories behind the songs.
Mike Woods: Last year in January, we had a camp with Marz Music and SM. They had liked the song since January  -- Korea's just very strategic when they release songs and how they brand everything around the song. It was purposely [for] the repackage album from day one -- not necessarily day one, but they were deciding between "Tempo" and "Love Shop" -- the original [title] is "Love Shop," by the way. So we kinda knew that the repackage album would have "Love Shot" being the title single.
We wanted something that was very, very performance-driven, very dance-driven -- something that would sound good loud and in an arena. We like the fact that it's kind of in a different time signature -- it's in 6/8, so that's not like a generic pop song. With Korea, we like to do things that push the boundaries, not super generic, because they're very musical. Things like that translate a lot better than they do in America. We really like the anthemic [sound] -- even [with] "Oasis," that's what we strive for. We like to do things that just sound big -- I feel like that's our niche with me, Kevin [White], and Bazzi. It's fun, big, and loud. We saved it for the last day 'cause we knew we wanted to end the camp with a bang, and in our heads, we knew what song we wanted to make. We had voice notes of it from the first or second day we got there, but we wanted to save it for the end 'cause we knew it would be a big song for them.
Leven Kali: Two years ago I went to Seoul for the first time for a writing camp with SM, and we started “Tempo” during that trip. It took a few sessions after that back in the states with the rest of the writers [Tay Jasper and Adrian McKinnon] to finish it up, and then Digi, the main producer, brought it home with the final touches. We didn't know where the song would end up, but I'm grateful that it ended up with EXO because they always execute the records at a unique and high-quality level. I'm really happy [with] how it turned out and blessed to be a part of their story.
The song is inspired by a lot of different genres and artists, like Teddy Riley, OutKast, and Take 6. Adrian is one of the most talented singers and musicians I’ve ever met, and he really brought that doo-wop flair to the track. In K-pop they really encourage experimental arrangements, so we got to be creative with this one.
“Tempo” was so fun to make because the energy during the entire trip was on fire. We were working so fast, coming up with tons of good songs, and definitely dabbling in the Seoul nightlife. Digi and Adrian had started the song on one of those crazy nights, and when we got back to the studio, it was a party making the record. Gotta give a big shout out to the blue soju. Also, fun fact: The original spelling of the song is “Ttempo,” with two Ts.
Digi Chammas: “Tempo” was a huge group effort with the writers and they absolutely killed it. I feel like you can tell it was a group of us having the most fun making that song. The constant switch ups and harmonizing is how we like to work. When we do that, there is a lot of back and forth for months with fine tuning, especially the a cappella section because it’s so special. Adrian [McKinnon] is a genius with his harmony. It’s one of my favorite songs I’ve produced, and EXO just crushed it. Crushed it! Having a single with them is what I’ve always wanted, and to be a part of such an exciting release is unreal.
"Tempo" is an amalgam of R&B, funk, disco, EDM, and '90s house. It all goes together without trying too hard. The pieces just fit. Doing edits on the demo wasn’t annoying or daunting because it just never got annoying to listen to.
I wanted to bring a bright energy to their music while still letting it still be serious without being too serious. Also, bed squeaks. They just work.
Keynon “KC” Moore: Since [co-producer] DaBenchwarma and I are both managed by 3Sixty Music Group we collaborate on many different songs. Danny [Smith, KC’s manager] is telling me he had a plug for 5 Seconds of Summer. And I know they wanted to kinda go [in] a crossover, kind of urban [direction], but still keep it pop. So DaBenchwarma sent me over a few tracks for that and I wrote to four or five of them. And “Trauma,” as it is now, was one of them. It was actually called "A Little Bit" originally. I wrote to that -- usually what I do is I'm a night owl. I'll write really late, like 3 a.m., and then I'll toy with the melodies in my head. If I can remember the melody the next day when I get ready to record, it usually works out. The next day I went in and recorded it, so when I sent it over to DaBenchwarma, that was one of the tracks he really liked. Danny sent the records over to the A&R for DNCE and Ryan [Jhun], but Ryan hit us back first and was like, “We really like this track -- I’m going to send [it] to SM Entertainment, but let’s make some changes before I pitch it.” We made all those changes, [and] Ryan hit us back [and] said, “They want this for EXO.” A special shout out Ryan’s team Marcan Entertainment because none of this would be possible without them.
Maroon 5's last album was very [influential] -- I have a friend that wrote on it and she's one of my biggest inspirations. I wanted to keep things simple -- I'm still working on really simplifying what we call "pop music," trying to strip things down enough to where it's still very much intelligent but easy for a two-year-old to catch onto. Maroon 5, definitely, I feel like I utilized some of their simplicity and took my own take on it from there.
To me, it's a progressively pop song in which it's simple, but it definitely has a lot to it if you really strip it down and listen -- there's so much going on.
Cedric “DaBenchwarma” Smith: When I started working on that particular track, I was working on some stuff for DNCE at the time, and KC was writing some stuff for them as well. One of the songs that we'd written to, Danny had just gotten a pitch from SM again. At the time I was doing a lot of urban music, and so… it took me a day or two, because I had to readjust myself, just kinda reset and get in a different zone for the type of track it is. 'Cause it's uptempo, guitar-driven pop, a lot of energy. And I had to readjust and reset to get it how I wanted it, and once I sent it over to Keynon, we just started vibing out to it. We were like, "Man, I think we got something here." And so we sent it over to Ryan Jhun; he and his team loved it but wanted to make a couple of adjustments to make it fit for EXO. After making the adjustments, Ryan sent it to SM Entertainment. They loved it but ask[ed] for some changes and edits in additional to the changes Ryan’s team requested, plus a rap verse was requested since it wasn’t in the original pitch. We made numerous adjustments so it could be more energetic so that EXO could showcase their dancing. They're just a very multi-talented group; we wanted the music and the track to reflect who they were.
I was listening to so much at [that] time. I don't like to listen to one thing too long -- I kinda get influences from a little bit of everywhere. A little bit of DNCE, Maroon 5 -- guitar-driven melodic tracks that just keep you moving rhythmically from top to bottom. For me, I was looking for records that have that strong guitar influence in 'em at the time. I think that's one of the things that caught [SM’s] attention, 'cause it gets your attention right from the front of the melody of the guitar, and it drives the song right on home.
Last time we did an urban R&B mid-tempo style [track]. But this time around, we just wanted to do something more upbeat. Like I said, they have so many talents, with their dance and the stage presence and the energy they give. We were doing a track, we heard the energy to it, we [were] like, "Hey, this'll be a little different than what we did, but I think it'll be perfect for them because of how versatile they are." One day they may do the R&B, mid-tempo [sound], then next they come out with [a] high-energy dance track, and they can kill it all.
Andreas Öberg: This is kind of an interesting story, because it's an older song. We did this back in 2014, so the name "Wait" is very appropriate. I've done many camps, over ten camps together with [SM] in Seoul, but this was in my own camp -- it was arranged by a publisher in Korea called Iconic Sounds. So we were doing a week of sessions, and we had one day off. We were gonna go somewhere, but for some reason we didn't. We were indecisive [about] what we were gonna do that day, so Jimmy [Burney] and I were talking and we had done a bunch of songs based on tracks, more full-on kind of productions. We said, "Oh, we have this afternoon off, why don't we just go to the studio, do something just you and I, acoustic guitar and vocals?"
Back then, EXO were already doing winter albums, so we were aiming at that. Shortly after the camp, [SM] said, "Oh, this is perfect for EXO's winter album." So we got it confirmed as a placement. It was supposed to, I think, be on one of those Christmas releases. But then for some reason, they said, "Oh, sorry, no, we decided to use it at a later stage." Through the years, at different times, they told me, "Yeah, it's about to come out." So we didn't pitch it elsewhere because we thought it was coming out, but it always got pushed. And now, finally, four and a half years later -- I think it was autumn of 2014 that we created this song. We were kind of joking about it, "Wait" being an appropriate title, but it ended up where we kinda intended it to end up. We're really happy with the results, how it sounds with EXO's vocals.
I had to re-record the guitar a month ago because they changed the key slightly. It's basically two channels of guitar, one [with] basic chords, a little bit of lower bass mid-range chords, and then there's one other channel where I lay out some of the chords in the higher register just to get a little bit more glitter. We wanted to create something emotional for the winter season. Not necessarily a plain Christmas song, but this is, I would say, a winter season song. I think in Korea, in my experience, the releases from the labels are very season-based. People and fans are expecting specific colors, chords, styles of music.
Jimmy Burney: Four years ago I was in Seoul, Korea at SM doing some sessions with my friends from Iconic Sounds, a very talented music production crew. I went to breakfast one morning with Tesung [Kim], who is the head guy at Iconic, and he asked me who else I had been writing with in the K-pop market at the time. I told him about my buddy Andreas Öberg who does really well in the K-pop scene, so they ended up flying him out as well. Andreas is a genius on the guitar. So after a few sessions of writing to fully produced tracks, I suggested maybe doing something a little more stripped down. He started playing this beautiful progression and the record just came together like magic. A year after that, we were told that EXO would be cutting it and releasing it. That ended up not happening that year; we had to wait a little longer... so long to the point I almost forgotten they even recorded it. It was a nice surprise to wake up and see that the repackaged album it’s on had went No. 1 in 60 countries [on iTunes]. So I guess it was well worth the wait.
I really wanted to do a record that captured raw emotion, and the best way I felt it would stand out was to write a song that was opposite of what we had been writing the whole trip. Don’t get me wrong -- I think uptempos, drums, 808s, synths, and other fun sounds are amazing, but there is nothing like the feeling of a real instrument, like guitar, piano. It was really fun to arrange this with Andreas who has a great ear for structure and harmony. When I recorded my vocals on the demo, I wanted to make sure that it captured the essence of raw emotion so that whoever ended up cutting it would feel it immediately.
Andreas and I started creating this song in the evening -- I was extremely jet lagged. We ended up taking a break and my friend Siwon Choi from Super Junior came and picked us up and took us to dinner and a night out on the town showing us Seoul. We got back to the studio after midnight and finished writing and recording “Wait.”
I had another song with EXO years ago called "Love Love Love.” I’m honored to be a part of another album, I think EXO are amazingly talented. Since “Love Love Love” had more rap elements, it was really nice to give them a record that was more vocal driven this time around.
Patrick "J. Que" Smith: We called it originally "Body Don't Lie," but I think it might've been a little too spicy, so they made some flips to it. But the process of writing it was super, super easy. I remember we got over there and HM -- Harvey [Mason, Jr.] -- brought the track to the table. This trip, in four or five days, we maybe wrote fifteen or sixteen songs. So we've written one or two songs, and Harvey comes in the room excited -- "I got one! I got it! I know I got it!" And he plays the track, and immediately everybody's hype. We sit down and we start writing and we start vibing off of each other. We blew through the song fast, cut it, dressed it up, played it for the crew, and they were like, "Yo, we love this one, we definitely think we wanna use this one." We got the call when we knew they were gonna cut it. The guys ended up recording it, and I remember being back in L.A. at this time, getting a call from Harvey saying, "Hey, it's going really well, they wanna know if you can write a rap for 'em." We sat down, banged out a rap really fast, and sent it back.
Before we started writing, that [concert aspect] comes up now. You have to picture it on stage. If you can't hear it being sung, if you can't see it being performed in a stadium, then it's not the record it needs to be. We've met them, and they're all amazingly sweet guys, but seeing them perform was just wild. It's like watching Clark Kent turn to Superman. They're so amazing and mild-mannered and good natured and super polite, and then when they step on stage, they just become these superheroes. When we sit down to write, you just understand that you can't write this song for Clark Kent. We knew that we had to write the song for Superman. If Superman can't sing this song, we're not doing our job.?
“Ooh La La La”
Digi Chammas: “Ooh La La La” came together so smooth. Bazzi is an animal with the pen. One of the A&Rs said something a little Latin would be amazing for EXO. Bazzi and I sat in the studio listening to this bossa guitar loop I had made with Justin Lucas right before I had gone out to Seoul. Honestly, [Bazzi] probably had half of song done within 5-10 minutes while I did the drums, haha. Then I just touched up the arrangement later that week before I left for L.A.. [Bazzi] knows how to write the catchiest shit ever. All I had to do was make it slap.
“Ooh La” is a Latin bop. It has low end and it moves. The inspiration for that was just EXO. When you have them as [the] goal, it’s easy to get inspired because you can almost already see them bodying it. You just know what direction to go.
Justin Lucas: The guitars throughout is me. It's got a bossa nova-inspired kind of groove. Me and Digi [Chammas] were messing around with the sort of bossa nova-inspired feel on the guitar, and then he sort of flipped that to more of the K-pop feel. We got together and played around with ideas, and while we were there writing, they sent some ideas. They said, "Hey, we're finishing the track, here's the bridge chords, can you do the bossa nova-style guitar over this section?" Once we started writing to the initial idea, it [took] about two days and it was done.
Greg Bonnick, LDN NOISE: Whenever we start to work on records for EXO, we usually start by creating tracks freely and try to be as experimental as possible. Being fortunate enough to have worked on past records, we are quite connected to their journey, so therefore [we] have a feeling of what we would like to hear them do next as listeners and fans.
For “Gravity,” we started with a simple beat like Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” and then played a funky bassline. As we layered more sounds, it became more like a disco/funk hybrid and gave us a futuristic feel. We visualized the movie Tron and the soundtrack by Daft Punk for the mood of the song and added the lead sound from “Power.” The lyrics added to the theme, and then Chanyeol helped with translation.
Mikey Akin, Sons of Sonix: We basically had the writing session for another artist by the name of Aston Merrygold who's based back home in London, and it was a writing session that we had with him. It was us, Varren Wade, and Aston. I felt like [Aston] loved the song, but he was still deciding his sound for his project, so the record was still open. And then Varren had a meeting with one of the representatives at SM, someone that was looking after EXO, and played the record to them in the meeting, and they loved the record. SM was like, "Yo, we would love to take this for our project." ["With You"] was [created in] May 2016, and it found a home eventually. [SM], they must have heard it top of this year or later.
Myself and Mo [Samuels], our whole production is based in fusion, a lot of fusion [from] our background, us being British and Nigerian. Being from southeast London, you grow up listening to so much garage, so much jungle, so much grime, so what we tend to do is we fuse elements of each genre that makes our foundations in our productions. So even though the record is an R&B pop record, you have the elements of U.K. garage in there. I guess that's kinda one of the reasons why the record must have stood out, because it's something new, but something they could relate to. We just added a different spin to it with the U.K. element. It's kinda like cooking, when you make [something] a certain particular way and you [add] extra ingredients, and you go, "Oh, this is new, I didn't know you could do that!" But you're not scared to enjoy the meal.
[Chanyeol's involvement] was more of a direction kind of basis, making it fit into EXO's vision for the song. Because you gotta understand, if someone presents to you a whole complete record, there's still things you might wanna change. When we were finishing off the record and doing post-production on the record, he did have his input in terms of if we could try this and move this section of the rhythm there and have a drop out here. It was a collaboration back and forth to get the best out of the record.
The Wavys: The initial idea for “24/7” came together almost a year before it got released. Our team is constantly working on new stuff for K-pop artists, and this is one of the ideas that we felt super strongly about.
Funny enough, it actually was meant for NCT 127 originally. We didn't find out that EXO was interested in it until around March, which is when we started to rework some of the parts.
We were going back and forth with [SM Entertainment] about different options for the intro of the song. We felt like we hit a wall and were stuck until the engineers we work with -- Aaron Berton, Andrew Hey -- walked by whistling the melody from the chorus. That’s when we knew it had to be the intro!
Our goal for this song was always to make it sound effortless while still keeping a high, driving energy going throughout. We wanted it to stand out from the other records on the album.
Bianca Atterberry: It was [titled] "Stranger" when we initially wrote it. Me and Deez and Mike Daley and Mitch, they played the track. Deez will have a track listening when we come in and then we'll sit down and listen to the tracks that they've created. We started with melody -- that's how I normally start in general. I'll hear it and then we'll come up with the melody, and [Deez]'s so good at hearing harmonies and backgrounds and little ambiances. His ears are crazy. Deez is a very hard worker, so he was like, "We gotta get it done." That's all harmonies, all backgrounds, all lyrics -- we [got] it done that day. I feel like songs that are made in the moment are best.
It almost sounds like a '90s R&B song [in] the intro, and then it just hits with this energetic drive to it. It has a whole 'nother drive, almost like a poppy drive to it. But I felt like the melodic pocket needed to be a little bit more open because the beat was moving a lot, so I didn't want the melody to be too fast. I wanted it to be something you could still sing to and vibe to, so I was just going through melodies. I just sang, girl, I don't know where it comes from! I freestyle [the] majority of the songs that I write -- I'll just come up with the melody and sometimes I'll have the concept within whatever I just came up with. I'm not saying anything, I'm just [mumble-sings], you know what I mean? Just hearing what naturally feels good in that pocket.
Of course [the inspiration] would be a '90s male group, of course. It's New Kids on the Block, *NSYNC, Backstreet Boys. Because I know that they have these supergroups and they're still in that '90s vibe but then they have these pop elements to them as well. They also dance like Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC, and it's like they all had a baby, basically. That's what the vision normally is for EXO and groups like that.
Deez: “Bad Dream” was written during a song camp hosted by SM Entertainment. Normally in SM camps, producers bring their tracks, and the songwriters choose one of them to work on based on the discussion between the writers, and also with the A&Rs. When I’m in those song camps, I usually get involved in the track and vocal producing and toplining. For this song “Bad Dream,” I worked as a vocal producer and topliner. This was my first collaboration with the co-topliner “Blush” [Bianca.] She has [a] classical voice, but at the same time, it’s very trendy -- you don’t see that very often. Right after I listened to her voice, I could easily come up with melody of the song. She’s absolutely one of the best U.S. songwriters I’ve met. Blush and I worked on the track in very extemporary way, as we both like that type of work.
In song camps, I normally create one song per a day, but the chemistry with Blush made us to do two songs on that day, and “Bad Dream” was the first song of the day. It took 6-7 hours for the toplining and the vocal production. [It] was a very satisfying session. I normally do not follow any leads, but for this one, I was exactly targeting EXO, as Blush’s voice gave me the inspiration.
When we were going through Mike Daley’s tracks, it was hard for me and Blush to choose, as most of Mike’s tracks were used during the previous sessions. While we were struggling, Mike played a track that I heard while I was in L.A. last year. Mike let me listen to the track at that time, and I kept that one since I really liked it. I was thinking of TVXQ. Mike didn’t remember the fact that he gave it to me already, and played to us. Blush and I agreed with working on the track, and result was more than great.
Mike Daley: Usually when I go out [to Korea], I try to have a couple tracks ready from my camp just to be able to start the first couple of days off, and then start making new stuff when I'm out there. But that was a track I worked on with a producer I work with a lot, Mitchell Owens. So we started working on a couple of songs and if you hear two different beats -- it started off as a guitar-R&B vibe [track], and then I just started messing with some of the chords and different sounds and got a whole different vibe in the verses. [I] tried to make it sound a lot different than the intro, 'cause I know that's the stuff Deez likes writing to.
I think their sound, it can't be anything regular, down the middle. It's gotta be a little left of center, just something that's engaging, because their performances are so crazy. That's what I'm thinking about with the track, trying to make something that performance-wise will be cool.
Some of the new EDM pop elements, I got some inspiration from that. But then still, the real feel-good R&B, boy band vibe, which is what I came up in with The Underdogs -- that's always a part of what I'm doing.
Greg Bonnick, LDN Noise: For “Damage,” we really wanted a bouncy hip-hop record but with [an] anthemic chant feel to the chorus, so even though the verses were laid back, the crowd could really engage with the hook. We started with a piano riff and clap and built the song around that, adding in different elements as it progressed. It was a lot of fun and something different for EXO, one of our favorites.
Deez: “Damage” was created during the same camp that “Gravity” was made. The work flow with LDN Noise was pretty similar, but I wanted to stress [the] bridge part of the song. As you can hear, the chord progression, the melody, [and the] harmonies of the background vocals in the bridge part are quite dramatic. Since the initial track was [a] very strong hip-hop track, I wanted to give some turn around through the bridge part, and it was very satisfying, as listeners could have more [of a] spectacle when they get to the final chorus, with the bridge.
Adrian and I [are] always obsessed with new topline[s] and fresh harmonies, and this song was particularly a challenge for us. I think we were just trying to make the topline of the chorus part with obvious counterpoint. We took a break to think out of the box, and boom, all the rhythm and notes of the chorus hit my head. Based on them, we worked on the catchy rhythm.
“Smile On My Face”
Iain James: “Smile On My Face” came together in Los Angeles at Brian Kennedy’s studio with myself and Sam Hook. Sam is very close friends with the artist Trey Songz, and the song originally started out as an idea for him. It didn’t take long to be produced, mainly because Brian already had a lot of the track in place, especially the chord structure. So it was really just a case of myself and Sam coming up with the concept, defining the lyric[s], and then creating the melody, which I remember being a lot of fun as we’re both singers.
In terms of inspiration for the song, I think it was clear from the start that we wanted it to be an intimate love song, something for a singer to really connect with, and have a catchy chorus -- which I think it really does.
The song I did for EXO-CBX was probably a bit more fun and upbeat, so I’m glad we could do something a bit more heartfelt this time for EXO. Something their fans could really connect with, and something that would really show off their vocal abilities.
Mike Woods: The original title is "Running," and the chorus [was] "I'm on the run/Baby I'm running."
Kevin White: I think the first or second thing [Bazzi] did [was] the "Running" [part]. I think at first it was kind of a mumble, and then he transformed it into words. We work real close with Bazzi -- we have a really good rapport and really good working relationship. I think this is one of the earlier songs we did in the camp. I remember Mike playing the stabbing chords, and then that kinda hit in the verses, and I remember we were saying, "It'd be crazy if the drums hit with that and then cut out." So it's doing a lot of things that come naturally to us.
Mike Woods: With us and Bazzi working together, I think we always try to do something that hasn't necessarily been done before or the way that we've done it. That's a really big thing for us anytime we work collectively, it's always about "How can we push the boundaries?"
Kevin White: The big choral stack... we just knew it had to go there because I think we were really searching for that big anthemic chorus that everybody's gonna sing in a stadium -- that's always the goal.